Chapter 5 in Phagan Case
July 26th, 1913
The Negro Conley’s Confession That He Was Frank’s Accomplice and Events Leading Up to Trial.
“He (Leo Frank) told me that he had picked up a girl back there and had let her fall, and that her head had hit against something—he didn’t what it was—and for me to move her, and I hollered and told him the girl was dead.”
With this startling accusation Jim Conley introduced his third confession. Under the rack of a merciless third degree, continued through the long afternoon of May 29, he weakened or became desperate toward the last and came out with his remarkable affidavit, which laid the responsibility for the killing of Mary Phagan directly upon the shoulders of the young factory superintendent.
Either it was all true or all false. If it were true, the negro simply had wilted under the ceaseless fire of the detectives’ questions and had decided to own up to his share in the crime and to seek to protect Frank no longer. If it were false, Conley, driven to bay, had, as a forlorn hope of saving his own neck, concocted the marvelous tale to thrust the suspicion of guilt upon the innocent Frank.
Defense Attacks Confession.
The latter is the theory of Frank’s lawyers, and they will advance it and bring evidence to support it and argue in its favor with all the ability at their command when the trial, set for next Monday, is under way.
“Why, when the negro admittedly has told a long series of falsehoods and has perjured himself repeatedly since his arrest should this last weird tale of his be taken as the gospel truth?” is the question they ask and apparently with some degree of reason.
True or false, the negro’s story was wonderfully impressive to the thousands who read his damning accusations against the factory superintendent next day. If the affidavit were a fabrication of the negro’s guilty mind, it was most cleverly and shrewdly conceived. There was just enough detail to his narration of how he had assisted Frank to dispose of the body to give the statement the color of naturalness and verity, and not such an overabundance as to lead to the suspicion that the incidents were being manufactured in the brain of the narrator.
Negro Sticks to Story.
If Conley’s story of the alleged part he had in the killing of the little factory girl was dramatic, his re-enactment next day in the old factory building of every detail of his astounding story was infinitely more so.
While a group of police officials, detectives, factory attaches and newspaper men followed him closely about the second floor, down the elevator, into the basement and back again, listening, spellbound, to his every word, the negro reproduced, movement by movement, every detail of the grewsome work in which he said he had had only a part.
Unhesitatingly—almost unconcernedly—he started from the point where he said he came upon the body, in the rear of the second floor near the metal department. Except for an occasional question from Chief Beavers, Chief Lanford or Harry Scott, he told his story without prompting.
Re-enacts Ghastly March.
“There’s where she laid,” he said, pointing to a narrow passageway, and he dropped down on the floor to show exactly the position of Mary Phagan’s body as he had said he found her. He lay partly on his face, with his right light slightly drawn up.
“Why, this girl’s stone dead!” he declared he yelled to Frank in the first fright of his discovery. “Mr. Frank was standing in the doorway right there. He told me to get a sack and put her body in that.”
Then the negro showed where he found the crocus bagging in which his affidavit said he carried the body. He made as though he were carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders, and pointed out where the burden of the dead girl’s body became too heavy for him. He said he called on Frank to help him. The superintendent, he said, came, cursing him for his clumsiness.
But Frank was nervous, Conley asserted, and himself dropped the feet of the little girl when they had proceeded but a few steps further. The negro proceeded to the elevator, where he said he waited for Frank to get the key, described the trip to the basement and his carrying of the body to the trash heap at the rear while Frank, he said, watched at the little trapdoor to see that no one interrupted them.
Tells of Writing Notes.
Conley said that he ran the elevator returning and that Frank go on at the first floor.
“Gee, that was a tiresome job,” Frank said, according to the negro.
“Then Mr. Frank hops off the elevator before it gets to the second floor,” he continued, “and he makes a stumble and he hits the floor and catches with both hands, and he went around to the sink to wash his hands, and I went and cut off the motor and I stood and waited for Mr. Frank to come from around there washing his hands, and then we went into his office, and Mr. Frank he couldn’t hardly keep still.”
Conley then described the writing of the notes, which he had maintained from the time of his first affidavit had been dictated to him by Frank.
Conley went through the grim drama with a realism that was convincing. His readiness, his unfaltering course from the second floor to the basement and back again his prompt exploration of every puzzling point that arose his quotations of alleged conversations that occurred between Phagan and himself all quite erased from the memory the confessed fact that he had just been guilty in his two previous affidavits of the grossest falsehood. For the moment everyone was willing to believe the negro implicitly.
Suspicion Again Aroused.
But a sober second thought after the strange spell of his acting had passed away aroused the suspicion that there was a possibility of this third affidavit, too, being a perjury and this wonderful acting being a product of the black man’s vivid imagination, spurred on by the shadow of the gallows across his path.
Since this dramatic event at the factory, the negro, has not changed his story in any essential point, the detectives say. It is possible that the authorities are so sure of the truth of his tale that they are making no serious efforts to gain further admissions from him. They deny that this is a fact. They declare that when with the negro they have worked on the theory that he may be the actual criminal, and many times have put him through the third degree in an effort to get another confession out of him.
Many inconsistencies have been found in Conley’s story. Many apparent deviations from truth have been pointed out. A number of statements conflicting with the testimony of other witnesses were made. But it remained for William H. Mincey, school teacher and insurance agent, to give the negro the lie direct and to charge him with the crime.
Mincey Affidavit a Bomb.
Next to the story of Jim Conley himself, the affidavit of Mincey, accusing the negro of the boast of killing a girl, was the most sensational of the entire Phagan mystery. In the point of direct accusation, it even surpassed the tale of Conley.
Events of importance have occurred in the case through June and July up to the present, but the statement of Mincey overshadowed them all.
Minola McKnight, negro cook, grilled in what Mrs. Frank, wife of the accused factory superintendent, was pleased to term “the detectives’ torture chamber,” signed her name to an affidavit which told of incriminating incidents at the home of Frank the night of the murder and the next morning. Within a few hours after she had been liberated from the police station she denied to a Georgian reporter, that she ever had made the statements accredited to her in the so-called affidavit.
Foil Plan to Move Conley.
An effort was made to get Conley away from the detectives by having him removed to the Tower. This attempt was frustrated in a proceeding characterized by Attorney Rosser as farcical in the extreme. Frank’s counsel charged that the detectives were afraid to let Conley talk.
Strength was added to the defense in June by the addition of Reuben Arnold, one of the city’s noted criminal lawyers, to Frank’s counsel. Arnold said in making the announcement that he was to aid in the defense declared that he had reviewed the evidence carefully and had become convinced that Frank could not be guilty of the crime.
Habeas corpus proceedings to obtain the freedom of Newt Lee, held in the Tower since his commitment soon after the murder, were brought by the attorneys for the negro, but failed, except in changing Lee’s status and procuring for him more privileges.
Charges Death Boast.
On July 10 The Georgian published the startling charges of Mincey which were contained in an affidavit in possession of the defense. Four days later The Georgian got from Mincey, who was teaching school at Rising Faun, Ala., his own story of the conversation with Conley in which he declared the negro on the afternoon that Mary Phagan was slain had bragged of killing a girl.
Mincey for a short time was an agent for the American Insurance Company of No. 115 1-2 North Pryor street. He was assigned a district west of the Terminal Station. He declared in his affidavit that he worked in the office until noon on April 26, and in the afternoon went on Peachtree street and saw the parade. Later he said he went over beyond Davis street on “back calls” and to make an effort to close some prospects.
Mincey saw Conley, he asserted, sitting by the house situated on the bluff at the junction of Electric avenue and Carter street. According to Mincey, the negro appeared to be asleep, but as the agent passed by Conley raised his head and shouted: “Who is that?”
“It’s a ‘policy man,’” said a negro woman who was going by at the time.
Says Conley Was Excited.
“I stopped and got into a conversation with the negro about insurance,” said Mincey in his formal statement to The Georgian.
“He told me his name was Jim Conley. He told me that he lived at No. 172 Rhodes street. I saw there was something wrong with him. He was nervous and excited and tried to put me off by telling me to come to No. 172 Rhodes street next week and he would take insurance.
“He told me he was in trouble. I asked him if they had had him in the jail or stockade. He said no, but that he was expecting to be in jail and that right away. I asked him what for.
“He said: ‘Murder; I killed a girl to-day.’”
“I started down toward him.
“He said: ‘I tell you not to come down here.’
“When he saw that I was coming anyway, he jumped up, and as he went around the corner of the house he said: ‘I have killed one to-day and I didn’t want to kill another.”
Believed It Idle Brag.
Mincey went on to relate that he had not attached much importance to the incident at the time, thinking that the negro was boasting of some negro scrape in which he had been involved. When he read the papers the next Monday, however, he was struck with the conviction that Conley was the man who committed the murder.
He said that he went to the factory the next day, but that everything was so confused and chaotic that no one would listen to his story, and he was almost chased out of the building along with a score of others who were offering the detectives and factory officials suggestions and clews.
Before he left he gained the ear of E. F. Holloway, day watchman, but Holloway told him that there were no negroes about the building before 4 o’clock, so far as he knew, and Mincey departed.
When Conley came out with his admission that he not only was in the factory the day of the crime, but that he was skulking in the shadows of the first floor when Mary Phagan and others entered the building, the tale of Mincey took on new importance. He was taken to the office of Attorney Rosser and there his statement was transcribed.
Story Causes Turmoil.
The publication of his accusations created great excitement in detective circles. Harry Scott, Pinkerton detective, rushed to the police station where he made the declaration that Mincey never told them a story of that sort when he came there to identify Conley. He added that Mincey had appeared far from confident that day that Conley was the man he had talked to Saturday afternoon, April 26.
Chief Lanford scouted the story and said he believed it to be a baseless fabrication. He hardly thought the defense would call Mincey to the witness stand when the trial actually began. Solicitor Dorsey set out at once to make an investigation of the story. He looked up Mincey’s history in every place he had lived in Georgia. He also was the recipient of many letters concerning the insurance agent-teacher. At the end of a week he announced that he believed he would be able to discredit the affidavit.
Subsequent developments are recent history, June 20, the date originally set for the trial, approached, there were well-authenticated rumors that a postponement would be granted. Judge L. S. Roan, who will preside at the trial, was present at a conference of the attorneys June 24, and by agreement between counsel set the date for next Monday, July 28.
Conley Indictment Urged.
With the publication of the sensational charges of Mincey came a demand for an investigation of Conley’s part in the crime by the Grand Jury. The demand was made on the ground that, if the negro were guilty, he should not go into the trial with the credibility of a free man, when it would be a natural supposition that the most natural thing for him to do would be to testify against Frank in order to shift the blame from his own shoulders, whre it belonged. It was argued that Conley should have exactly the same status as Frank.
Solicitor Dorsey bitterly opposed a movement of this sort. He said that he would fight it to the last. He declared he had sufficient evidence to convict the factory superintendent and that he was confident of his guilt.
Over the Solicitor’s head, Foreman W. D. Beatie called a meeting of the Grand Jury, on the request of many of its members. The Solicitor was asked to be present when the jurors met July 21. No other witnesses were called. The Solicitor for an hour and a half detailed his reasons for not desiring the indictment of Conley. At the conclusion of the session it was announced that no action would be taken on the negro’s case at that time.
Dorsey Balks Postponement.
The next skirmish came on the proposal again to postpone the trial. The Solicitor again set himself in opposition to this plan, declaring that the State had been prepared to go ahead since June 30 and that there was no valid reason apparent why it could not go when called July 28.
Frank will go on trial for his life next Monday if no motion for a continuance is successful. The present indications are that no effort will be made for a postponement. Witnesses are being summoned by both sides; the judge has expressed his opinion that the trial will proceed, and the venire has been drawn.
The young factory superintendent will go before the tribunal expressing confidence in his acquittal. Through the three months that he has been imprisoned in a cell at the Tower his optimism never has left him for a moment. He is one of the most remarkable prisoners ever in the county jail. He has been assured and confident. He has talked little of the crime, even among his friends. He has read the papers and magazines closely. When he has been visited by his wife and other relatives, the conversation invariably has been on cheerful subjects. He has refused to be drawn into a discussion of the mystery with the reporters.
“The guilty man should hang,” the remark he made when told of Conley’s third confession, is practically his sole comment on Atlanta’s greatest murder mystery.